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Taliban Step Up Urban Assaults, Testing the Mettle of Afghan Forces

11 January 2016 No Comment

By MUJIB MASHAL and AHMAD SHAKIB in the NY Times, Jan 10, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — The urban attacks are suddenly coming at a dizzying pace — five in the first week of January alone. Three were relatively simple even if massive bombings, but in the others, Talibangunmen entered important cities, seized buildings and hostages when they could, then set off their explosives vests when capture seemed imminent, sometimes after hours of fighting.

As the insurgents have been grabbing stretches of territory in Afghanistan’s border provinces, the quick guerrilla assaults have been nicknamed “complex attacks” here. They have kept residents of Kabul and other major Afghan cities on edge. The Taliban’s intended message is clear: We waited out the Americans, and now can strike at will — even through the so-called “ring of steel” cordon of security around Kabul.

But the attacks are not going unanswered. As the Afghan security forces have struggled elsewhere, the troops tasked with preventing such attacks have had a measure of success in minimizing the damage in recent months.

“They come to die, their death is guaranteed. And we go there hoping to take care of them without casualties,” said an Afghan special forces commander in Kabul who has been involved in repelling dozens of the attacks. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media.

“For us, there is no rush in clearing them, because they have achieved what they wanted in that first blast already: They have gotten the headline, they have sent fear through the city,” he said. “We want to do it carefully, making sure there is no collateral damage, no civilian casualties.”

For both sides in the war, the urban attacks have become important symbols. For the Afghan government, rocked by the temporary loss of the provincial capital of Kunduz last year, a good showing by the special forces is vital in trying to fight panic after months of battlefield losses.

For the Taliban, the propaganda value of being able to turn even relatively safe neighborhoods into war zones for a few hours has become central to their campaign to challenge the government’s authority. Some officials believe that the recent increase in urban attacks is also meant to strengthen the insurgents’ hand in any upcoming peace negotiations, which the Afghan government and its Western allies are again pushing for urgently.

The cat-and-mouse game that has developed around complex attacks starts long before the Taliban strike. The Afghan special forces have aggressively mounted night raids around major cities, hoping to disrupt the Taliban’s planning or gain intelligence on what might be coming.

Security officials insist that the raids are crucial, even though such operations created deep bitterness against American forces when they were leading them.

“Night raids are easier for us, because we already have some information and we know how to go there and how to engage” with Afghan civilians, said Sharifullah Chamto, an Afghan special forces commander in the south. “But this sort of incident in which the enemy is sheltering among civilians and aiming at you, where you have to make plans at the spot and hit them, this is very difficult and challenging.”

The Taliban fighters conducting the complex attacks are drawn from what the insurgents call the “martyrdom battalion” — a sort of special forces unit. The attackers are carefully screened for physical ability and religious seriousness, according to the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid. On many occasions, at least in Kabul, an attack has been traced to the Haqqani network, a lethal arm of the Taliban that has carried out some of the group’s high-profile attacks.

The insurgents’ weapons are not particularly sophisticated. They use assault rifles, grenades and pistols, but they come prepared with enough ammunition and food for hours of fighting. Energy drinks and candy bars have been found at the sites of their attacks, according to the special forces commander in Kabul.

In one of the attacks this month, near the Indian Consulate in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the militants took over a vacant four-story building. Afterward, policemen searching the building found two Kalashnikov PKM machine guns, one rocket-propelled grenade launcher and two AK-47 machine guns. The militants also left a message on the wall, written in blood: “One martyr, a thousand ready to die.”

The pattern of the complex attacks is almost always the same: an explosion, often from a bomb placed in a vehicle, which creates an entrance. Then the Taliban fighters rush in. Blasts and gunfire puncture the night’s silence.

Afghan forces respond, with helicopters hovering above. That section of the city effectively comes to a halt.

The Taliban often rush to the highest point in a building, making it hard for the government forces to clear each floor and engage the enemy firing from a better vantage point. The government forces sometimes simply blast the insurgents out using explosives, rocket-propelled grenades or helicopter gunships.

The Afghan forces face other challenges, too. When they respond to an attack, they are not just fighting insurgents, but also the legacy of a long war that has militarized the cities. They have to push back a variety of armed groups — private security guards, bodyguards and militias of strongmen — to take charge of the battle.

And even after government forces have cordoned the area, their chain of command is sometimes challenged as public leaders — many of them former warlords — try to step in.

In the attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, for example, the province’s governor, Atta Mohammed Noor, arrived at the scene with his American-made M4 assault carbine, wearing black sunglasses and a ski hat. Pictures were posted on Mr. Noor’s Facebook page showing him looking through the targeting scope, aiming at the building under siege.

Whether the purpose of the battleground visits by Afghan officials was to lift the morale of the security forces, as some officials have claimed, or to get publicity and satisfy a “thirst for weapons” as some analysts have said, the commanders of government forces say the public figures seem unaware that such battles take technical skill and experience.

“The situation is getting better, and I would say now 70 percent to 80 percent of the time we can take control of the scene and the operation easily,” the special forces commander in Kabul said. “But everybody is armed here, so some of those challenges are still there.”

For the special forces, the fight is over only after the final militant has been killed and the building has been declared to be clear, which sometimes takes hours as each room is checked.

The next day, life picks up again. In what has become a grisly routine, intelligence and police assessment teams sift the wreckage, surrounded by the gore of battle. But even when all that is cleared away, the attacks leave other marks. Somewhere in the city, cranes unload new layers of stark concrete walls, awaiting another assault. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/world/middleeast/taliban-step-up-urban-assaults-testing-the-mettle-of-afghan-forces.html?ref=asia

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